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Ethics and the rising consumption of meat in industrialized nations

by (559)
Updated about 5 hours ago
Created October 31, 2011 at 2:25 PM

Only When Meat is Stigmatized Will Factory Farms Stop Thriving...

http://www.theatlantic.com/life/archive/2011/10/only-when-meat-is-stigmatized-will-factory-farms-stop-thriving/247139/

Anyone have thoughts on this?

My opinion: I really disagree with it. I think it's dogmatic, irrational, and highly impractical. But I'm not informed enough to make a logical argument. For example, I wonder what a paleo approach to animal rights is, especially as there are 7 billion people in the world now?

Medium avatar
10176 · January 19, 2012 at 1:01 PM

I've always liked the logic of "milk is for baby cows". So presumptuous and maternal sounding yet without a shred of usefulness. As if baby cows exist for some reason other than to provide meat and milk. Pets?

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3924 · October 31, 2011 at 8:50 PM

Good article! Thanks for the link. I would add to his argument that taking marginal cropland (highly eroded, sloped, poor soils etc.) out of grain production and putting it into hay production would add more grass for cattle, improve water quality and only slightly reduce the grain available for human consumption. Definitely worth the trade-off from an environmental and sustainability perspective. He also doesn't touch on the important nutrients animal manure can give back to the soil when composted and used properly.

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2245 · October 31, 2011 at 8:35 PM

Great article Melissa.

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3924 · October 31, 2011 at 8:29 PM

"Maybe right to humane treatment" instead of "right to liberty" up until the time they are humanely slaughtered?

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3924 · October 31, 2011 at 8:27 PM

Great discussion piece. I added economics to your tags since he tries unsuccessfully and incorrectly to use economic theory to forward his animal rights agenda.

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3924 · October 31, 2011 at 8:24 PM

And now my "Paleo" ethical stance: "Animals have a right to humane treatment and slaughter while being raised and confined for the production of eggs, dairy, meat, and honey." I would buy pork from the guy who slaughtered his own pigs in his backyard with a .22 to save them from the stress of a slaughterhouse. Kudos to him!

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56616 · October 31, 2011 at 7:35 PM

+1+1 cool area of study. I did that for undergrad.

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559 · October 31, 2011 at 7:17 PM

Nance, and the higher the demand for grassfed meat, the more efficiently it gets produced, thus the cheaper it gets, making it better able to outcompete the factory-farms? It makes me wonder how halal meat is produced relatively cheaply.

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3924 · October 31, 2011 at 7:10 PM

Oops. Had to go back and edit my grammar . . .

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8979 · October 31, 2011 at 7:05 PM

Yes, the writer has a history of dressing up his anti-meat stance in a variety of popular coverings.

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37187 · October 31, 2011 at 6:36 PM

I've always said, if I had to kill my own food I'd be reduced to clams and eggs and maybe a few fish. I know, I'm pathetic, but I don't need to watch a webcam to know that any animal factory operation will be less than compassionate. I've seen dog groomers and vet techs with the same problem.

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37187 · October 31, 2011 at 6:33 PM

Yep! Unlike kitties, I don't believe humans should torture their food but I don't feel guilty for being an omnivore.

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37187 · October 31, 2011 at 6:31 PM

Only when meat is (insert word here) will factory farms stop thriving . . . My inserts: 1) more profitable when grass fed 2) understood to be much healthier if grass fed 3) understood to be tastier when grass fed

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56616 · October 31, 2011 at 6:21 PM

doesn't surprise me, The Atlantic had a "sustainable" food summit sponsored by Conagra, Coca-Cola, and other similar companies. They want to sell you "sustainable" greenwashed products like granola bars and vitamin water.

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559 · October 31, 2011 at 6:19 PM

thanks for the article melissa - i was unfamiliar with mcwilliams when i read this, but his extremism is palpable and it saddens me that a news source i respect (the atlantic) published it. i remember dr. kurt harris's confrontation with another atlantic writer.

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138 · October 31, 2011 at 6:07 PM

I actually read some research a guy did on a plant where he measured it's stress with polygraph equipment when attempting to burn it's leaves. The plant freaked out

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6087 · October 31, 2011 at 4:43 PM

Yeah but we eat vegetables too, so there's only a risk that the vegetarians are morally superior to us.

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10255 · October 31, 2011 at 4:38 PM

this is the quote that irks me "as long as humans deem it culturally acceptable to consume animal flesh -- that is, as long as eating meat is an act that's not considered taboo -- factory farms will continue to proliferate." eating meet has nothing to do with culture- its a fact of human nature that is not, and never will be taboo amongst healthy people.

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10255 · October 31, 2011 at 4:32 PM

think of the earth as a closed system with a fixed amount of raw materials. there really is no such thing as a renewable resource. its just reallocated raw material. how much of that raw material should be used to create the human form? could these materials be used more beneficially elsewhere? think of all the water contained in the billions of bodies out there. humans are the world's most problematic infestation.

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13635 · October 31, 2011 at 3:13 PM

Domestic animals don't have liberty. They are owned property. If they live a peaceful life up until the end, it's because their owner allowed it.

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376 · October 31, 2011 at 2:56 PM

I second that thought. Just like people have a right to liberty up to the point they choose to go on living without it.

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11 Answers

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56616 · October 31, 2011 at 5:28 PM

I would recommend this article by George Monbiot http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/sep/06/meat-production-veganism-deforestation

You have to understand that McWilliams is an extremist about animal rights. He believes all human use of animals is wrong. Of course he would take that position.

There is no one solution to feeding 7 billion different people. There are local solutions for each area's unique challenges. For some areas, that will mean a predominantly plant-based diet, but honestly a sustainable system for most of these areas does include some animals, dairy goats for example. No, smallholders in Africa might not be eating steak every day, but using animals is part of sustainable systems. For McWilliams this is wrong because those dairy goats have rights that same as you do. McWilliams is completely disingenuous. He pretends to care about sustainability, but animal rights is his highest priority.

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3924 · October 31, 2011 at 8:50 PM

Good article! Thanks for the link. I would add to his argument that taking marginal cropland (highly eroded, sloped, poor soils etc.) out of grain production and putting it into hay production would add more grass for cattle, improve water quality and only slightly reduce the grain available for human consumption. Definitely worth the trade-off from an environmental and sustainability perspective. He also doesn't touch on the important nutrients animal manure can give back to the soil when composted and used properly.

C61399790c6531a0af344ab0c40048f1
2245 · October 31, 2011 at 8:35 PM

Great article Melissa.

8949bf87b0e0aefcad10f29975e4fa2b
8979 · October 31, 2011 at 7:05 PM

Yes, the writer has a history of dressing up his anti-meat stance in a variety of popular coverings.

9d43f6873107e17ca4d1a5055aa7a2ad
56616 · October 31, 2011 at 6:21 PM

doesn't surprise me, The Atlantic had a "sustainable" food summit sponsored by Conagra, Coca-Cola, and other similar companies. They want to sell you "sustainable" greenwashed products like granola bars and vitamin water.

9dbfedbe21eae2a65093f8774ba8ad4d
559 · October 31, 2011 at 6:19 PM

thanks for the article melissa - i was unfamiliar with mcwilliams when i read this, but his extremism is palpable and it saddens me that a news source i respect (the atlantic) published it. i remember dr. kurt harris's confrontation with another atlantic writer.

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3924 · October 31, 2011 at 6:45 PM

I am a 4th year doctorate student in Agricultural and Applied Economics (my area is environmental economics with a fellowship in sustainable agriculture), and I can assure you, this author has little grasp of basic economics -- just enough to to flaunt his ignorance in a way that promotes his political agenda and makes him sound like he knows what he's talking about to other people who don't understand basic economics. People base their food consumption choices on a variety of criteria, including their value system, their preferences, their budget, the good's price, cultural norms and taboos, their information and knowledge about the good, their need for sustenance etc. They buy to maximize their utility ("happiness/satisfaction"). Period. There is nothing in the theory of economics that supports his statement that "as long as people eat meat, factory farms will be the dominant mode of production." In fact, every dominant means of food production in the history of human civilization has been replaced by a new dominant means of production at some point. As economists, sociologists, ethicists, environmentalists and consumers research and assess the true costs of factory farms, their role in production will diminish and possibly be replaced (I hope soon!)

This author also has no concept of sustainability and of the complex environmental, social, and economic drivers that affect it. Sustainable agricultural systems require complex interactions between plants and animals. They require landscape level environmental processes and strong social systems. We will not achieve this sustainability by all becoming vegans or vegetarians. Again this author knows only enough about sustainability to flaunt his ignorance in a way that promotes his political agenda to other people who know little about sustainability.

We definitely have sustainability, environmental, social and animal welfare problems in the developed countries in this world. And human population growth is putting a huge strain on our natural resources. I am dedicating my professional life to these problems and they are HUGE. But ending all meat consumption is not the answer.

This guy really makes me mad!!!

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3924 · October 31, 2011 at 8:24 PM

And now my "Paleo" ethical stance: "Animals have a right to humane treatment and slaughter while being raised and confined for the production of eggs, dairy, meat, and honey." I would buy pork from the guy who slaughtered his own pigs in his backyard with a .22 to save them from the stress of a slaughterhouse. Kudos to him!

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56616 · October 31, 2011 at 7:35 PM

+1+1 cool area of study. I did that for undergrad.

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3924 · October 31, 2011 at 7:10 PM

Oops. Had to go back and edit my grammar . . .

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41442 · October 31, 2011 at 4:24 PM

His whole argument is based on a faulty belief:

As long as we eat meat factory farms will be the dominant mode of production.

We've been eating meat long before factory farms came about. The increase in meat consumption is more directly related to higher standards of living rather than cheaper production of meat. Factory farming is a problem, but it's not solved by simply forgoing meat. The answer is breaking down the walls between source and product. Many folks have no idea how meat is raised, where meat comes from, or what it even looks like at various points in production. That's the problem with factory farming. The fact that they can put meat in a styrofoam container syran-wrapped in plastic, neatly cut, free from blood, clean and sanitized is why factory farmed products are accepted.

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10255 · October 31, 2011 at 4:38 PM

this is the quote that irks me "as long as humans deem it culturally acceptable to consume animal flesh -- that is, as long as eating meat is an act that's not considered taboo -- factory farms will continue to proliferate." eating meet has nothing to do with culture- its a fact of human nature that is not, and never will be taboo amongst healthy people.

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369 · October 31, 2011 at 2:32 PM

Im pretty sure the paleo approach to animal rights is that animals have a right to liberty right up until they get to be food.

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3924 · October 31, 2011 at 8:29 PM

"Maybe right to humane treatment" instead of "right to liberty" up until the time they are humanely slaughtered?

96bf58d8c6bd492dc5b8ae46203fe247
37187 · October 31, 2011 at 6:33 PM

Yep! Unlike kitties, I don't believe humans should torture their food but I don't feel guilty for being an omnivore.

Ef9f83cb4e1826261a44c173f733789e
13635 · October 31, 2011 at 3:13 PM

Domestic animals don't have liberty. They are owned property. If they live a peaceful life up until the end, it's because their owner allowed it.

543ae0f06cde1a20a280ce3bdbc6a3de
376 · October 31, 2011 at 2:56 PM

I second that thought. Just like people have a right to liberty up to the point they choose to go on living without it.

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8239 · October 31, 2011 at 3:49 PM

A vegetarian is someone who manages not to notice the screams of a carrot.

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138 · October 31, 2011 at 6:07 PM

I actually read some research a guy did on a plant where he measured it's stress with polygraph equipment when attempting to burn it's leaves. The plant freaked out

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6087 · October 31, 2011 at 4:43 PM

Yeah but we eat vegetables too, so there's only a risk that the vegetarians are morally superior to us.

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10255 · October 31, 2011 at 3:03 PM

i wonder if the author has ever contemplated the fallicy of the continued over population of the earth via the promise of an endless supplies of soy to feed all?

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1035 · October 31, 2011 at 5:00 PM

I think factory farming would change if web cams were installed. The watching public would demand it (xcept for a few sadistic creeps). I mean, the whole world has the technology. Backyard small farmers could start the trend, and it could grow. Even could become a marketing tool.

But, the real issue for increasing meat consumption is the elephant in the room -- human population size.

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37187 · October 31, 2011 at 6:36 PM

I've always said, if I had to kill my own food I'd be reduced to clams and eggs and maybe a few fish. I know, I'm pathetic, but I don't need to watch a webcam to know that any animal factory operation will be less than compassionate. I've seen dog groomers and vet techs with the same problem.

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4347 · October 31, 2011 at 4:35 PM

I used to agree, but not anymore. I think if factory farms are stigmatized enough, they'll stop thriving. I probably eat a little less meat than many paleo-inclined people, but I think that if people would be more educated (allow themselves to be more educated) about CAFOs things could change.

I think more positive emphasis on supporting local farmers and organics could help immensely. Pounding things like "meat = bad" into consumers' heads doesn't work. Using the positives of local organic farming like the humane treatment of animals, environmental, and healthful foods might help.

Just a thought: Maybe demonize n6's instead? I bet a lot of people would get on board with a "fad." However terrible fad diets are, they do raise awareness. And CAFO meat is full of that stuff. There's been a lot of awareness raised lately on gluten--though there could be more/better--maybe picking the next "thing" to demonize and say "Oh hey! CAFOs make this ten times worse!"

(I'm too lazy to edit for grammar today.. Sorry. :) )

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175 · October 31, 2011 at 4:19 PM

I don't think it's far to go after meat for causing food shortages or environmental problems. The bigger issue is that too many people eating too much food that other people could be eating. I don't know how to solve the obesity problem and at one point I weighed 170 pounds and I got their eating very little meat. I got to the point that I could get fat eating a homemade vegan diet. You can eat too much homemade beans and rice.

I don't think it's fair to blame the environmental problems on people having too many children because I've seen how many toys rich adults in the United States have that don't have any children: Tablets, Play Stations, boats, scuba gear, brand new BMW'S and small planes. I used to live some what near a family of 17. They had skinny children, a 1000 square foot home, hand me downs everything and an old school bus that only ran on Sundays. The reality is that a lot of people pollute the amount they spend and people that have more money spend more. I know this isn't completely true. There are rich childless people that are good environmentalist, but I've seen a lot of environmentalist spend a lot of money at REI.

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10255 · October 31, 2011 at 4:32 PM

think of the earth as a closed system with a fixed amount of raw materials. there really is no such thing as a renewable resource. its just reallocated raw material. how much of that raw material should be used to create the human form? could these materials be used more beneficially elsewhere? think of all the water contained in the billions of bodies out there. humans are the world's most problematic infestation.

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605 · January 19, 2012 at 3:46 AM

Personally, I find the whole concept of animal rights completely ridiculous. They're food. I don't cry when I find out my wrench was heated to a "painful" temperature of 2500F so that it could be easily shaped, and I don't care how the animal was treated either. The only thing I care about is the quality of the end product. Us morally superior people spend our time and money helping people, not grocery products.

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10176 · January 19, 2012 at 1:01 PM

I've always liked the logic of "milk is for baby cows". So presumptuous and maternal sounding yet without a shred of usefulness. As if baby cows exist for some reason other than to provide meat and milk. Pets?

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1078 · January 19, 2012 at 3:13 AM

When comparing protein yields from grass-fed beef and from crops, it seems that - at least in Australia - you kill more pests (mice, insects, snakes and other animals) through growing grain than through raising cattle. Of course you might argue that the relatively brief suffering of those animals should weigh less than the suffering of cattle, many of whom endure various painful procedures well before they're slaughtered.

Then of course there's kangaroo meat and fish which usually comes in one quick kill, and so has even more limited animal welfare concerns. While fish are generally overfished globally, ecologists generally say there are too many kangaroos.

Considering that the most widely eaten food here is beef, stigmatizing meat consumption could make animal welfare much worse.

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